JOHN KISEMBO retired in 2001 as Inspector
General of Police after the Justice Sebutinde probe in the force.
He has since become deputy director of the Nakawa-based United Nations
African Institute for Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders
(UNAFRI). As he told Richard M. Kavuma, the police
has had to work hard to win the confidence of President Museveni.
Joining the Police
I joined in March 1980. When we left Makerere in 1979, the Public
Service Commission was paralysed. There were jobs but some of the
commissioners had run away… some of us had just one interview;
others had not even had one when the commissioners fled.
With friends we used to meet somewhere on Kimathi Avenue to chat
and plan what to do next. Then there was this appeal by the government,
asking particularly graduates to join the Police Force.
We sat interviews and 30 of us were selected to join as cadet assistant
superintendents of police, the first group of graduate cadet police
Becoming police chief
When the NRA/M took power, I was a regional officer in Mbarara
and shortly thereafter, I was transferred to Kampala Special Branch
I was sent to head the Protective Security section. It provided
escorts to VIPs, covered national and international functions, and
frequently I was able to see the president at close quarters, but
we were never talking as such.
I became IGP in 1999; I had been deputy Inspector General since
1992 and I would have been surprised if anyone below me had been
appointed. It was on a Saturday and the Minister of Internal Affairs
at the time, Tom Butime, called me to say that ‘I have been
instructed to appoint you acting Inspector General of Police’.
I went to State House, among other things, to thank him for the
confidence he had put in me. During that time, we had occasions
to brief the president on the situation of the nation. We also got
summons after key incidents.
That was also the time of political campaigns for the 2001 elections.
We had very many meetings to discuss what we intended to do to ensure
security and to answer the numerous complaints that were sent to
His strong points… his concern for the wellbeing of the common
man, what he called my wananchi viz-a-viz the policing. I also found
he had command of facts and detail when given right information.
I must say he was a tough client. He always wanted facts. And over
time we discovered … some people did not understand policing.
Everybody thought they could police. As a result, the President
was given a very wrong picture about the police –incompetent,
unpatriotic, etc. You heard the President’s pronouncement
about corruption, about the police fighting the NRM, which was not
There were people who would say, for example, during campaigns
that ‘such people are anti-government, they should be investigated
and arrested’. And the same group in NRM would get involved
in similar activities and they shouldn’t be arrested. You
are eating your cake and keeping it.
So we got into problems of misinformation. Most of the time we
were trying to correct the wrong impression that many people were
giving the President. There was talk right from 1986 [of abolishing
the police] – about the loyalty of the police, about the police
serving all other governments and remaining, while others like the
army go away. They did not understand that the police was a civil
But I think over time the President got to know the positive side
of the police, although he remained a bit skeptical.
Surrounded by liars
These were people who were believed to be impeccable and they had
his ear all the time, unlike us who had to seek appointments. And
I imagine some of these people tried to keep us, the police, away
from the President.
But in the end, I think he came to understand the police because
the relationship became a bit smooth: “These are the facts;
these are opinions,” unlike in the past when he used to say,
“You people don’t like the government. You are fighting
One incident was in Mbale, where the late James Wapakhabulo lost
the election. The politicians pointed at one polling station that
was near the police barracks. This station was to cater for the
Mbale bus park, taxi park, the shops around the market and the barracks.
Also, most police officers were out because they were already deployed
to police the polls. And that took many years as an example of how
the police disliked the Movement.
But there were many complaints about the police and [President]
would call us. Eventually when the police started talking to him,
standing its ground on some of the issues that were being raised,
he started understanding.
He listened when he got correct information.
I will give you one example: we had an incident in Kangulumira (Mukono)
during the presidential campaigns where a jilted lover cut down
his in-law’s plantation.
Operatives from State House had been sent because people came
running that the multiparty group was harassing the Movement supporters
and the police was doing nothing.
And he got to me to say, why are they harassing my people and
you are not protecting them? He raised the Kangulumira issue and
I had already been briefed by the Regional Police Commander (RPC).
I told him “it is not true. The information I have is contrary
to what you have.” He asked, “Have you been there?”
I said I had not been there but the District Police Commander had
briefed the RPC who in turn briefed me.
He said, “Why don’t you go and verify?”
And we went to Kangulumira with the PRO [Public Relations Officer],
the local police chiefs and met the Movement and multiparty leaders.
We filmed the scene and held a meeting at the sub-county headquarters,
and everybody including the Movement supporters were saying, there
is nothing political. Somebody’s wife had absconded with another
man and the jilted lover went and cut the plantation, and everybody
knew. And the victim was not a Movement supporter. The victim was
a [Besigye] supporter.
And so we got all the evidence and gave it to him. I remember
we met in the morning as he went to Tanzania, and he told me, “I
want your report in the evening.”
Fortunately, we had done a video recording of everything and the
statements made, and I put it all to him on his return in the evening.
At midnight he rang me and said, “Thank you, my people had
told me falsehoods.”
So when he got an opportunity of being corrected, I think he listened.
I would rather talk about the [Museveni and Obote] systems rather
than individual presidents. At one time, like in the early 1980s,
the army was above the law and had so many clashes with the police.
The army has got one problem: they will make an arrest and don’t
care about the evidence. When you go to court, that case will be
thrown out. Now, the army was not prosecuting cases. It was the
police. Then they will say the police is incompetent…
I remember in 1986, Lt. Gen. Aronda [Nyakairima] was assigned
to supervise Central Police Station to curb corruption, incompetence
and what... So we had very many suspects arrested, but then they
did not have files. And they were asking, “Why can’t
these people go to court?” And we said, “but there is
I remember he eventually walked out of CPS and never handed over
because he discovered it was not his area.
But [generally from 1986], the army was very disciplined, and that
is the starting point for any security system.
There was an inquiry into corruption in the police and [I had to
step a side]. I must say it was run very unprofessionally. The judge
condemned us on allegations which were never investigated and were
subsequently overturned by various bodies. I was cleared by the
IGG [Inspector General of Government] of all allegations labeled
against me. But by then the President had already appointed Maj.
Gen. Katumba Wamala.
Before the IGG’s report, I met [Museveni] at Kisozi and
I complained to him about the unfair treatment I and my colleagues
had received. And he said well, the IGG… will investigate
and give me a report.
When the report came out, I had two meetings with him; one at Kisozi
and another when I was taking leave at Rwakitura. There was an Inspector
General of Police and I could not question his choice of IGP or
say that “since I have been cleared, can Wamala go back to
Under the Police Statute, the retirement age is 55, but there is
a provision that you can retire after putting in 21 years of continuous
service and you have attained the age of 45. I had attained both,
so I opted to retire from Public Service.
Once I told him my feelings about the inquiry and I remember him
saying, “Look, this inquiry was badly done so we have to spend
money to carry out another investigation.”
He said he had seen the report and he regretted that a bad job had
been done, and he offered me a few options, one of which was a presidential
advisor on the police. But later on he and I were not very comfortable
with this because - I had just come out of an inquiry where my image
and reputation had been tainted and then becoming an advisor…
So he said he was going to think about my redeployment. And then
this job came up. I told him there is a job in UNAFRI and it is
open to Ugandans. And I remember him talking to his Principal Private
Secretary to alert Mr. Eriya Kategaya, then Minister of Internal
Affairs, about that job and John Kisembo. That is when I was encouraged
There are a few cases that have remained controversial but by and
large there are very many cases for which he demanded briefs and
for which he gave directives in support of the investigations. I
think he displayed some commitment to fighting corruption. Most
of the high profile cases, the President had to be briefed and we
never found any interruption from him. But of course there were
some officials who would come to say, “You know, you see”,
to the extent of saying the President has said this… And the
President later says, “No I never said that.”
I think I tried to do my best and I am happy with my contribution
to Public Service and as head of the Police Force.